In his first visit to Egypt since taking office on 2 and 3 March, newly-appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry came to deliver the following message: that the protagonists in Egypt’s political crisis – regime and opposition – must agree on a political map aimed at breaking the deadlock and making the concessions needed to reach common ground to advance the current chaotic transitional period.
With this in mind, Kerry urged the main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front (NSF), to reverse its decision to boycott upcoming legislative elections, set to begin on 22 April. In an effort to convince the stakeholders of the need to adopt such an approach, Kerry reminded them clearly that ‘political consensus’ was a precondition for the granting of a $ 4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The loan is necessary for the release of financial aid promised by major donor countries, the United States in particular, to help Egypt out of its severe economic crisis.
But, furious with the US call to the opposition to participate in elections, which the latter considers an intervention in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood given the group’s expected electoral victory, some NSF leaders – including Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Constitution Party; Hamdeen Sabbahi, leader of the Egyptian Popular Current; and El-Sayed El-Badawi, chairman of the Wafd Party – refused to meet Kerry.
Their conviction of US support for the continuation in power of the Brotherhood is widespread among Egypt’s media, opposition and large segments of the public. The reality, however, is that the Americans played no role in the Brotherhood’s arrival to power and the advent of Egypt’s first Islamist president. Washington simply took note of the political ascension of Islamists in Egypt, as in other countries of the ‘Arab Spring,’ such as Tunisia.
Pragmatically, they wanted to establish a working relationship with Egypt’s new masters, as they had done with former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, in order to safeguard US regional interests – hence the impression that they support the Muslim Brotherhood.
Reason dictates that Washington should support secular forces, with which it shares political values, and not support Islamists, whose ideology is far distant – even incompatible – with its own. The reality, however, is that the US has found the secular opposition divided and unable to provide an alternative to the Islamists, while the Brotherhood remains Egypt’s most powerful and best organised political force.
The Americans therefore want to establish close collaboration with the group to defend US interests in Egypt and the region.
In this context, the US seeks to maintain Egypt’s stability. And this was the actual content of the message delivered by Kerry. The US wants the continuation and success of Egypt’s democratic transition and aspires to create the conditions for political stability necessary to the preservation of US interests in the Middle East.
These remain unchanged and relate first and foremost to the security of Israel and the maintenance of the peace treaty that binds it to Egypt, along with the security of oil supplies from the Gulf region through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Within this context, Washington hopes to continue to benefit from the facilities that allow it to fly over Egyptian territory, along with the passage of its warships into the Suez Canal, granted under the terms of US military assistance to Egypt.
In both cases, President Mohamed Morsi has so far pursued policies in accordance with US interests. First, he confirmed his respect for contractual commitments to Israel. In addition, he successfully mediated between Israel and Hamas to end hostilities in Gaza last November, earning him praise from Washington.
Meanwhile, the US has repeatedly stressed that the safety of the oil monarchies of the Gulf represented a red line, referring to the hegemonic tendencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the latter’s attempts to intervene in these countries’ internal affairs.
Flirting with Iran since Morsi’s arrival to power certainly displeases the US, although many internal and external barriers stand in the way of rapprochement between the two countries.
The recent tourist cooperation agreement, signed in Tehran on 27 February by the two countries’ tourism ministers, should not be overestimated. The agreement’s timing, three days before Kerry’s Cairo visit, suggests that it aimed to send a message to Washington regarding Egypt’s willingness to pursue a more independent policy.
Nevertheless, the US remains aware of the limitations of Egypt-Iran rapprochement. From the total frostiness that has marked relations during the last three decades, relations between Egypt and Iran could improve in various fields without rising to the level of an ‘axis’ or ‘alliance.’
Under such conditions, it is normal that – despite the objections of some members of US Congress who want to impose certain conditions – the White House is calling for the continuation of US assistance to Egypt: $250 million in economic aid and $1.3 billion in military aid. Military aid acquires special importance given the fact that Washington wants to continue its partnership with the Egyptian army, which remains a major player in the Egyptian political game and whose role is crucial to the pursuit of peace with Israel.
It is within this context that the delivery in late January of four US F-16 jetfighters to the Egyptian army – with an additional 12 aircraft scheduled to arrive within 18 months – must be seen.
Hicham Mourad is a professor of Political Science in Cairo University and Editor in Chief of Al-Ahram Hebdo